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According to African folklore, Leopard stopped sharing his meals and started to hide his kills in trees because Jackal and Hyena weren’t reciprocating his generosity and Leopardess became wary because Hare ate her cubs. One of the best remembered fables of the ages is, however, ‘How the Leopard Got His Spots’ in the ‘Just So Stories’, where Rudyard Kipling elucidates the benefits of camouflage. Leopard looked ‘like a sunflower against a tarred fence’ when he entered the forest from the veld until the Ethiopian kindly painted the five-dotted rosettes which cover the leopard’s coat to this day.
Leopard Panthera pardus, issued in 2009, artist: Helge Denker

Leopard Panthera pardus, issued in 2009, artist: Helge Denker

The fable holds much truth, as it has been discovered that the patterns and colours of wild cats evolved over the centuries to blend into their specific habitat. A leopard will be better suited to the dappled light of its wooded environment, if it has spots. Many other interesting facts about leopards are also not common knowledge.

The word ‘leopard’ stems from the Greek words leōn (lion) and pardos (panther), and the ancient belief that it is a hybrid of both. The genus Panthera, including the other three big cats – lion, jaguar and tiger – is thought to have emerged in Asia, with ancestors of the leopard and lion migrating into Africa. The last common ancestor of these big cats is said to have lived about 6.37 million years ago. The leopard has featured in the art, mythology and folklore of many countries where it has historically occurred from ancient Greece to Rome. Black panthers (uncommon in Africa) are melanistic leopards or jaguars, having recessive genes causing their dark colouring.

As powerful as the leopard is, it is shy and avoids confrontation, and would seem, if one was inclined to anthropomorphise, to have an inferiority complex, often letting lion and hyena steal its kills. If it doesn’t have the advantage of cover and surprise, it will often quickly disappear into foliage; a fleeting image of power and grace.

The most widespread (from Asia to Africa), adaptable and successful of the big cats will also usually avoid high risk situations, preparing to play it safe. Although it is an opportunistic hunter and enjoys a varied diet from insects to antelope, it will mostly target medium-sized animals in small herds where there is a low risk of injury. It is a fallacy that baboons are its favourite food as they are too vocal and dangerous for the leopard to make hunting them a common occurrence. A leopard will also not risk injury by defending a kill.

Deadly surprise for this baboon... Photo: John Dominis

Deadly surprise for this baboon... Photo: John Dominis

Although the leopard is a renowned climber, known to be able to carry prey of over 50 kg up into a tree, which it uses as a refuge and larder, and can often be seen comfortably perched in a tree with legs dangling over the branches, it is also a proficient swimmer. The leopard, Panthera pardus, relies on its stealth to surprise its prey. If it is unsuccessful on the first attempt, it will often give up. It is extremely agile however, and can reach speeds of 60 km/h for short distances.

Because the leopard is a solitary animal, there is the chance that males and females may miss opportune periods for mating. There is, therefore, no specific breeding season, and ovulation is induced by mating.

A master of camouflage and stealth, the leopard’s secretive existence has ensured its survival. Although its tracks may be observed in many areas, it is rarely seen, remaining elusive like an apparition, dream or vision. When walking amongst the trees, in the mountains or in the Fish River Canyon, you may have the slight unsettling feeling that Leopard is watching from above, perfectly blended into his mottled background.

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Once upon a time a giant snake dwelled in southern Namibia. Every so often it devoured the sheep and goats of the people and finally they decided to kill the snake. Armed with spears and accompanied by their dogs the men set out for the hunt. They encircled the snake, kept it at bay with torches, shot arrows at it and thrust spears into its body. Even though it was a giant snake it stood no chance against the superior numbers. In its death throes the snake tossed and turned, tearing deep furrows into the ground.

Nama legend about how the Fish River Canyon was formed. Source: mural in the Cañon Village

Nama legend about how the Fish River Canyon was formed. Source: mural in the Cañon Village

An old Nama legend explains in this vivid manner how the Fish River Canyon was formed. Geologists offer a more prosaic but no less fascinating explanation. It also involves an epic death struggle – though not of a snake but of a super-continent and it does not happen overnight but goes on for hundreds of millions of years…

Once upon a time in the area of today’s canyon there were deep fissures in the earth’s crust. Some 350 million years ago part of the surface caved in along those fissures and a rift valley, about 20 km wide, emerged. The Fish River chose the rift for its bed. Due to the low gradient the river meandered through the valley in wide loops – also called a meander belt.

The ancient southern super-continent of Gondwana disintegrated some 120 million years ago. South America and Africa drifted apart. The rims of the African fragment rose – Namibia’s interior is a high plateau even today – and with it the drop to the sea level. Starting from its mouth, the Gariep (Orange) River dug deeper into the earth and the Fish River, its tributary, followed suit on the high plateau in southern Namibia. Thus its shallow meander belt turned into the Fish River’s winding system of gorges.

Fish River Canyon, (5 Cent), issued in 1981

Fish River Canyon, (5 Cent), issued in 1981

Standing at one of the viewing points on the edge of the canyon you are able to visually relate to the geological explanation. You are on the shoulder of the rift, looking onto a plain below – the floor of the rift valley. The plain is also termed the ‘upper canyon’ and the meandering gorges that have been cut into it are the ‘lower canyon’.

In total the Fish River Canyon is about 160 km long, up to 27 km wide and 500 m deep. It is seen as the second largest canyon on earth – after the Grand Canyon in the US. Hot springs are found in some places on the canyon floor: at Sulphur Springs, several kilometres south of the main viewing point, for example, or at the Ai Ais spa.

The canyon is situated in the Nama Karoo on the western fringe of the summer rain area. Rainfalls are unreliable and limited to small areas at a time. The annual average is around 80 to 100 mm. Thus the gorges of the Fish River and its tributaries have served local inhabitants as lifelines for hundreds of years. Rock engravings testify to the presence of people in ancient times. In the 19th century missionaries wrote about groups of Nama living there. From 1890 onwards the Nama were displaced first by German settlers and later by South Africans. Now they live in places like Warmbad, Keetmanshoop and Bethanien. Efforts to protect the canyon started relatively late, if compared to Etosha National Park in the north, for example. The canyon was proclaimed a national monument only in 1962 and a nature reserve in 1968.

'Hell’s Bend' in the Fish River Canyon at the main viewing point. Photo: Gondwana Collection

'Hell’s Bend' in the Fish River Canyon at the main viewing point. Photo: Gondwana Collection

Looking at the canyon landscape it is hard to believe that is was – and still is – utilized for livestock farming. Many farmers, however, were forced to give up due to overgrazing and a prolonged drought. As a result a private nature reserve, Gondwana Cañon Park, was established on the north-eastern boundary of the national Ai Ais Richtersfeld Transfrontier Park.

The famous 80 km canyon hike from Hiker’s Point to Ai Ais (5 to 6 days) is part of the national park. In Gondwana Cañon Park hiking tours with or without mules are offered in the wilderness of the canyon landscape some 40 km north of Hiker’s Point.

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How does one know that the Namib is the oldest desert on earth? And that the ostrich originates in Namibia? The answer to both questions is the same and it is revealed by the fossilised dunes of the Namib, or rather, UNDERNEATH the Namib Desert. Largely covered by the sand sea of the ‘young’ Namib, the ancient sandstone layers become visible only here and there. One of the most beautiful sites – apart from the Tsondab Canyon close to Solitaire, which is closed to the public – is found in Gondwana Namib Park, some 30 km south of Solitaire. There the russet sandstone, known as Tsondab sandstone, has been exposed and cut into by an ancient river. Guests of Namib Desert Lodge spend the night right at the foot of the fossilised dunes or at the camping site with views of the dunes-turned-into-stone.

These former dunes were already there about 20 million years ago. The sand compacted into sandstone during more humid phases 16 to 8 million years ago. But desert conditions prevailed in many parts of today’s Namib even during ‘humid’ periods. That is the reason why experts regard the Namib as the oldest desert on earth.

Petrified sand dunes, Kuiseb River (25 Cent), issued in 1986, artist: Johan van Niekerk

Petrified sand dunes, Kuiseb River (25 Cent), issued in 1986, artist: Johan van Niekerk

The stretch of sand sea which is 80 km wide and now extends from Walvis Bay to Lüderitz was formed much later. The sand, by the way, is erosional debris from the Drakensberg Mountains. It was washed into the Atlantic Ocean by the Gariep/Orange River and deposited on the sea floor and along the western coastline. Constant south-westerly winds carried the sand into the interior and over millions of years swept it into huge fields of sand and dunes.

The fossilised dunes answer the question about the origin of the ostrich only when you take the time to stroll about and scrutinize the ground. You will find that here the Tsondab sandstone is extremely rich in plant and animal fossils. Roots have left their traces, for example, and tunnels of ants, termites, beetles and spiders are discernible. Even spider webs have been preserved – a rarity! A word of warning: collecting of fossils is strictly prohibited.

Furthermore, the fossil remains of rodents and reptiles were found, as well as those of animals which remotely resemble aardvark (anteater), giraffe or elephant. Based on these finds scientists were able to piece together a rather comprehensive picture of the landscape of that time – it did not look much different from today.

The shell of an ostrich egg embedded in sandstone which is millions of years old. Photo: Gondwana Collection Namibia

The shell of an ostrich egg embedded in sandstone which is millions of years old. Photo: Gondwana Collection Namibia

The most intriguing fossils contained in Tsondab Sandstone are fragments of large eggshells. They look similar to ostrich eggs, as we know them, and there are several variations which differ in thickness and in the pore structure on the outside. This suggests that there were different types of ostrich-like birds. Since similar shells are always present in other layers of similar age as well, the different types cannot have existed alongside one another at the same time. Instead, a sequence of different species becomes apparent.

The oldest shells are from eggs which were laid about 16 million years ago. Their initial thickness of 4 mm decreased over the ages; today’s shells are 2.5 to 3 mm. The primeval eggs were also much larger – they weighed over 2 kg and had a volume of up to 1.7 litres. The equivalent today is about 1.5 kg and 1 litre. In Gondwana Namib Park some fossil shells have been discovered which do not seem to resemble any of the types known so far. They now have to be examined by experts.

Fossilised dunes of the prehistoric Namib in Gondwana Namib Park. Photo: Gondwana Collection Namibia

Fossilised dunes of the prehistoric Namib in Gondwana Namib Park. Photo: Gondwana Collection Namibia

The layers of Tsondab Sandstone thus contain the phylogenetic tree of today’s Ostrich. On the basis of the eggshells its line can be traced back to an early ancestor that existed 16 million years ago. It may have resembled a giant bird which occurred on the island of Madagascar at that time. Therefore it is plausible that the Ostrich originates in Africa and spread to Eurasia only at a later stage.

The fascinating story about the origin of the ostrich can be learnt from the book ‘Passage through Time – The Fossils of Namibia’, written by geologist Gabi Schneider and beautifully illustrated with drawings by artist Christine Marais.

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